I found myself in a room full of young men and women to talk about the work we do at SheThePeople and the ground reality of gender issues in India. These were young lawyers and professionals from Kabul here in India as part of a bootcamp by the Stanford Law School and the American University of Afghanistan.

What I concluded with at the talk is the starting point of my article. The lead professor on the program asked me to end my talk on gender and democracy (#DemocraShe) on a note of ‘hope’.

And so for a change, for hope, I didn’t ask anything of the women at the conference. Instead, I looked around the room and turned to the men and said:

You are 12 men in this room and you are our story of hope. Let’s have you join the movement with women to fix what’s been a patriarchal overhang for centuries. I put the onus on men to change. Stop asking women to change. Men must drive a new conversation, reinvent from within, and change those in your kind who need help in understanding men = equal women.

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What kind of actions could men do?

Change the system. In fact a lot of the feminist movement talks are about the movement being against a patriarchal system and not men. And perhaps right now given how gender inequalities are, men do hold a majority of responsibility in fixing a deeply entrenched system. We need positive conversations in which men can acknowledge the problem and take responsibility at a deeper level at workplaces, at homes, in the park, in WhatsApp groups, at the washing machine, at family weddings or wherever else. Fathers, friends, husbands, partners, employers, cousins, uncles all must support the women around them to achieve higher goals and eliminate petty talk that discounts equality.

Men must drive a new conversation, reinvent from within, and change those in your kind who need help in understanding men = equal women.

A few years ago, I was hosting the Deutsche Bank ‘Women in Asian Business’ Conference in Singapore. And their subject was – Men Matter. The idea was to debate how in organizational structures and in boardrooms men hold the key to women rising up the ladder. Not because women won’t rise on their own but because for centuries men haven’t made enough place for them. There is also the notion that men can’t talk gender equality because it stops them from being ‘men’. Core to this was the realization that to alienate men from the gender debate was like cutting off half the population that could potentially spur the movement forward.

Traditionally, gender issues have been accredited to women’s issues as if it’s a battle BY women FOR women. There is only little discussion on why that has happened. We have a great sense of the women’s issues, but a surface level understanding of what role men can play in helping progress the gender agenda: How can that be addressed? Corporate boardrooms are brimming over with challenges. “It’s time to take the issue mainstream,” asserted Tan Sri Rafiah Salim who counts herself among the few women who sit on powerful boards and is a former UN Assistant Secretary-General. Diversity is not just about the number but about how many places or positions women are so they also make a larger impact on policy and therefore impact the lives of more women. Is it time to inspire, challenge and change ideas around the role men play in supporting and sponsoring women to the top? It’s hard not to mention that very awkward statistic that there are more CEOs named John than women CEOs around the world.

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Is it time for men around us to vehemently chase the notion that men must become ambassadors for gender fairness? How can organisations explain what’s in it for men to be part of this diversity change? How could they be brought on board? While we do have some laws that make things mandatory but surely the movement of getting more women in a company’s key positions will get propelled if the inherent philosophy says so. Unilever’s Paul Polman has asserted what’s by now well documented, “Gender equality also presents an enormous opportunity for economic and business growth. Addressing the barriers is not just the right thing to do; it must be a business priority.”

A systemic solution to a changing and evolved voice of men will need immediate and granular scrutiny of private and public behaviours that will help shape an environment of equalness.

In India we have had MARD campaign, but we need more. Globally we had campaigns like men of quality must fight for equality. Or the Man-Up programs, which calls for redefining the role of men and boys in the fight for gender equality. Young activists like Gurmehar Kaur and Angellica Aribam have talked of talking to young boys and starting an equality dialogue with them at an early stage. Supreet Singh of Safecity made a video that’s titled ‘Save the Boy Child’ implying we need to talk to them from the very start about how they treat girls.

A systemic solution to a changing and evolved voice of men will need immediate and granular scrutiny of private and public behaviours that will help shape an environment of equalness.

Even as corporations and startups search for their own solutions, it might work well for them to begin with the men. What method they choose to pick is their prerogative so long we make a shift. Advocacy over advice? A policy in place? A pledge to go equal pay? As long as they recognise that men must transform leadership positions by opening them to women and turning their sponsors over just being mentors. They must actively be part of the women’s equality movement.

Image Credit: Philip Toscano/PA

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Shaili Chopra is a Stanford Draper Hills Fellow 2019. She is an award winning journalist of 18 years and the founder of SheThePeople. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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